Despite crackdown, is state losing ground in vaccination push?

Chris Reed
San Diego Union Tribune editorial writer and former host of KOGO Radio’s “Top Story” weeknight news talk show

Four years into a crackdown on high numbers of California students going unvaccinated because of claimed concerns over vaccine risks, new statistics from the 2018-2019 school year show that 10 percent or more of the students in 117 kindergartens and 5 percent or more of those at 1,500 other kindergartens do not have their required shots. But these students are able to attend school because their parents have succeeded in obtaining medical exemptions.

After a new law by Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, was enacted in 2015 that ended personal belief exemptions from vaccinations, the number of vaccinated kindergartners increased to above 95 percent on average. That’s the level seen as creating “herd immunity” from infectious diseases. This was treated as a success story by public health officials who supported Pan’s effort to respond to a Disneyland-based measles outbreak that was California’s worst in years. They expected the vaccination rate to keep going up as public health information campaigns emphasized their importance.

But the overall kindergarten vaccination rate in the state dipped to 94.8 percent in 2018-19, and to much lower at many schools. Aware of the sharp increase in medical exemptions on questionable grounds, this led Pan and Gov. Gavin Newsom to hash out a compromise under which state public health officials would automatically review such exemptions in two circumstances: when doctors issued five or more in a school year and in schools with vaccination rates less than 95 percent.

Senate Bill 276 has passed initial votes and is expected to be enacted by session’s end in September. But authorities in the Bay Area have already begun a crackdown after a San Jose Mercury-News report found that just five doctors issued at least one-third of all vaccine exemptions in eight of the region’s school districts.

Doctors responding to parents’ ‘market demand’

Experts say that these doctors are in effect responding to “market demand.” Thousands of parents – often affluent people who are skeptical about modern medicine and interested in alternative medicine – remain eager believers in discredited theories that vaccines are responsible for autism and other early childhood medical woes. They reject the representations of public health authorities.

Meanwhile, as CalWatchdog recently reported, California is one of the states most at risk of a measles outbreak caused by the combination of both unvaccinated children and the high level of air passengers from nations around the world such as the Philippines and Italy that have had measles epidemics because vaccination rates have dropped.

Public health officials believe it is just a matter of time until California has a measles outbreak as severe as the one based in Disneyland in the winter of 2014-15, in which at least 131 infections were reported.

UCLA warns many exposed to virus at food court

“In 2019, four outbreaks linked to patients with international travel have been reported in California,” the state Department of Public Health announced last week. As of July 10, the state had 58 confirmed measles cases and the U.S. had 1,109 measles cases. The national number is nearly triple the total seen in all of 2018.

This week, officials at UCLA are on edge after confirming that an individual who used the UCLA campus food court on July 2 and July 3 was infected with measles and potentially could have exposed thousands of people. The university says employees who may have been exposed cannot return to work until they prove they’ve been vaccinated.

Measles is one of the most highly infectious viral diseases, public health officials say. Before an effective vaccine became available in 1963, it killed millions of people worldwide each year. That fell to about 110,000 a year earlier this century after vaccines became widely available even in poor nations. 

But the World Health Organization said in April that the number of deaths appears to be steadily increasing worldwide since 2017, the last year for which full statistics were available.

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